I recently read No Bad Parts, by Dr. Richard Schwartz, who created the Internal Family Systems therapeutic modality that I have really been loving.
The book is a great overview of the “parts” system and how IFS works as a healing modality. While it’s recommended that you find a practitioner that is trained in IFS to help you go more deeply into your “exiled” parts, which are basically the parts of you that are still frozen in moments of past trauma, the book gives a lot of practical advice and tools for you to begin the journey through understanding your parts and how they relate together.
IFS in a Nutshell
IFS divides our different “parts” of ourselves into “exiles”, “protectors” and “firefighters.” Underneath all of them is our “Self”. This is what I would also refer to as the soul, or our “true essence” or our consciousness.
Firefighters are the parts of us that come in when nothing else has worked, so tend to be more aggressive or destructive. Types of firefights could be intense rage, compulsive shopping, drinking or doing drugs, dissociation, overeating, or being impulsive. Their goal is to help diffuse stress or intense feelings that they feel you can’t handle in the moment.
Protector parts are parts that are protecting younger, exiled parts of ourselves. They are all different “shield” parts that are meant to protect other, more vulnerable parts of yourself that are being activated. A protector part might be a part of you that micromanages in order to feel in control, a part of you that puts a wall up to withhold stress, a part of you that feels anxious or nervous, or a part of you that makes you feel like an outsider.
Then we have the exiles. These are often younger parts of ourselves, but don’t have to be. These are typically parts of ourselves that got locked away when they felt pain or stress that they were unable to deal with at the time.
For example, a child who is bullied might then become an exile, with a protector part that is a perfectionist because “if they were perfect, the bullying couldn’t touch them.”
A child who has a parent that is unable to emotionally be there for them due to their own mental health challenges and has no one to turn to when they are upset would be the exile, and a protector might be the part that then created a wall from feeling big emotions or being “emotional.”
There are all different parts, and how they interact and show up for you is unique.
But it’s by knowing, loving, and befriending the different “parts” of ourselves, we can come into greater wholeness and healing.
We can understand how our system works, and how parts work together to keep us safe from pain and danger, we can slowly “unburden” these parts by setting free the “exiles” by helping them feel safe and feel old feelings to release them, which then helps the protectors to relax and do a different job in our system that’s more positive, and then the firefighters feel more chill because our system isn’t so over-taxed.
My Experience with IFS
I’ve spent the last while diving into IFS with someone trained specifically in IFS.
My experience with IFS was truly illuminating. Over time, I was able to learn about how my “system” operates from a new lens that helped me to find new breakthroughs to leave from an even more open, compassionate, and authentic place.
Most notably, I found it fascinating to understand my “protectors” at work who were there to sweep in when an “exiled” part was revealed.
In the past, I had done work to help uncover the “exiles” and these difficult parts of the past through somatic healing (compassionate inquiry by Gabor Mate), but this resulted in my “protectors” getting even more activated in the days and weeks after each session that uncovered a new tender place.
In healing, there needs to be integration. Part of why I’ve always been passionate about leading people to heal through their own meditation practice and what naturally arises from our consciousness is because our souls can then “drive the process”, and will allow whatever is ready to be healed to arise in our consciousness when we are truly ready to go there.
While I have no issue with plant medicine, breathwork or any other modalities that can catapult you to deep places quickly, I think the missing link is to remember that after we go deep to reveal something to ourselves, we need to be able to integrate that experience.
My somatic healing work was incredible, but it also took to me to really intense places.
The integration after each session was really difficult. I would be wiped out for days, and sometimes weeks after each session, first trying to just move through the energy that was being dislodged from my system, but also with trying to navigate all the coping mechanisms that were calling out for me to use, and trying to focus and engage with the healthy ones instead of the unhealthy ones.
It was a lot – and it was beautiful – but it was intense. Even when I finally thought that I had integrated that work, I was noticing my “protectors” were being activated in a whole new way.
For example, I have an avoidant protector who wants to just avoid responsibility or facing things, and was seeing that show up in a number of different areas in my life in a more pronounced way than I ever had before.
I also had an “outsider” protector that comes in to tell me that I don’t belong somewhere in order to prevent hurt which I was finding was still being really activated too.
I have an old protector who likes to disassociate from my body so that I lose all connection with it, which creates disordered eating patterns that hadn’t been active since I was in grade 7 and second year University that all of the sudden were trying to creep back in.
Those are just three – there were many!
The protectors come in because they think that they are protecting you from feeling something or reliving something, but I felt like in those moments, as an adult, I was totally okay to ride the waves of uncomfortable emotions or anything else…so was confused as to why my protectors were more “active” than they had ever been.
I came to this work to understand more about these responses because I knew I wanted to heal the deeper “exiled” parts and was open to it, but was finding my “protectors” were preventing me from integrating that work.
IFS gave me a lens to not only go deep within to help heal these places, but also to give me a framework to help understand the parts of me that get scared or nervous when I go to deeper places, and how to help calm and soothe them too to actually integrate the breakthroughs and healing that come from traversing these parts.
What is different now for me is that I feel a lot safer to explore deeper realms of myself because I now know how to integrate those experiences and which “protectors” might be active. I also feel more empowered to live life from an embodied place. I also loved watching some “protectors” shift into their “unburned” roles to actually do things that really help support me! As a result of the work, I have more compassion for myself and my parts, which has allowed me to have more compassion for others too.
If you are wanting to dive deeper within yourself, and particularly into shadow work or trauma work, I highly recommend IFS. Especially if you are doing somatic work alongside IFS, I think both are really complementary.
Somatic work can help you get into your body to the root cause of so much of our suffering, but then IFS can help you understand truly how your system responds when we go to those places, which can ultimately help you truly integrate the work.
If not, your protectors might stop your progress or ability to continue to “be” with these exiled, more vulnerable parts while they work to release from your system.
If you are curious about IFS, I recommend starting with the book to familiarize yourself with the method, and then from there, to find a practitioner who can help you explore these parts of yourself.